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Standardization and Collaboration: Randy Rettberg on ten years of iGEM

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When teams showed up for the first iGEM competition ten years ago, Randy Rettberg said that the goal was for participants to bring whatever they had. Now, as both the competition and synthetic biology has advanced, the organizers have higher expectations. “We used to say, ‘bring us your parts,’” Rettberg stated at the opening ceremony this morning. “Now, we say, ‘bring us your good parts.’” The science coming from teams of (primarily) college students from around the world, and being presented at the Giant Jamboree, is impressive. Moreover, the focus on design and standardization is showing results.

The whole purpose of iGEM is to essentially invert the classical mode of scientific discovery. Rather than look at an existing cell and try to figure out how it works (i.e. top-down), iGEM is build around trying to design a biological system in a bottom-up approach. And that, suggested Rettberg in a conversation following the first day’s events, may be why iGEM is going so well. People may look at iGEM teams and think “how can this be, these are undergraduates and summer is short? It takes years to do anything in a PhD. This is a real question, not an accusation. And we say it’s because of standard parts.” If people question the use of standard parts because they aren’t used in academia, Rettberg says, “right, and maybe that’s why it take so long.” There are teams in iGEM but not exactly in academia, “and that’s why it takes so long…Maybe we’re right.”

Rettberg then elucidated on these two points, first explaining the focus on bottom-up design and standardization at iGEM. Standard parts are the norm in computer engineering, each component is designed to fit a specific position. In synthetic biology, he said, “it’s not just taking a genome as is and chopping it up, but making a part that fits here…and this one there. You aren’t just finding parts [and smashing them together]. So what we’re saying is that in engineering, people say, ‘I’m going to make this do that.’ People are saying the same thing here [at iGEM].” So rather than making an observation about the properties of a system, these students are becoming “designers that know why something works. And it’s easier to figure out [how it works] when you know why.”

Rettberg also talked about the construction of the teams, which are comprised of students from diverse backgrounds rather than just biology or computational modeling. “Maybe you have some political science people, or some business people. I had a student give me his iGEM business card last year…and he had a business title: ‘Fundraiser.’ He wasn’t a bench biologist at all, he went and raised money for the team.” It is not difficult to imaging that working with these multidisciplinary groups at a relatively early stage of training will serve the participants extremely well throughout their careers. Working with political science and business students will help science trainees who move into the world of industry and startups. The reverse is true as well, of course, with those political scientists and fundraisers getting an outstanding background in the nuance of scientific research. For science students who go the academic route, the interdisciplinary nature of iGEM teams will serve a similar purpose. Blending cell biology, molecular biology, math and computer science is critical for the success of these projects, and is becoming more and more important in the broader research community.

However the iGEM system works, the students love it. As we sat in the hallway talking, Rettberg referenced their intensity and enthusiasm, suggesting that it was not the energy one usually sees after a traditional undergraduate summer lab course. That has implications for STEM education, he says. With the excitement demonstrated by the participants, along with the progress made in the science being brought to iGEM, this event could serve as a model for those talking about the need to reform or improve STEM education. “Maybe these are good examples [of how things could be done].” For example, iGEM found that by giving students flexibility and not constraining their choices, they took greater ownership and pride in their projects. “It’s their work, not someone else’s.”

Rettberg never went so far as to say that iGEM is an unqualified success, but that seems to primarily be because he isn’t quite sure how to define success. “Is 225 [teams] impressive? I think you have to figure out what you might compare it to. So which one is the next one? The next international, collegiate, team-based science competition?” The short answer, though he never said this quite so concretely, is that while other competitions exist iGEM is one-of-a-kind.

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